Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)
Dutch painter, born at Leyden. Son of a miller, he left university early (1621) to study painting. After three years’ apprenticeship to a local artist he spent six months in Amsterdam with Pieter Lastman who had been to Italy and had become familiar with the work of *Carracci and others.
Rembrandt seems to have been more influenced by the Dutch followers of *Caravaggio, who by directing the fall of light from a single direction could create emphasis by contrast and suggest sculptured form. From this technique was developed Rembrandt’s famous chiaroscuro, with several illuminated points gradually fading into the golds and browns of deepening shadow.
He returned to Leyden (1625) and soon acquired a considerable reputation and several pupils. Chiaroscuro effects are already to be seen in, for example, Simeon in the Temple. In 1631 Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam and quickly became a fashionable portrait painter, and since his subjects were mostly rich burghers whom he did not have to flatter unduly, provided he gave them the dignity and trappings of wealth, he was free to display his great gift for interpreting human personality.
The romantic side of his own character was shown (as indeed earlier at Leyden) by his delight in dressing his sitters in all sorts of fantastic finery, not only silks and satins but furs, turbans and even armour. To indulge this taste to the full he painted large numbers of selfportraits, thus arrayed. Biblical and classical subjects continued to attract him and he excelled in dramatic narrative. Group portraits, of which The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp (1632) was among the first to achieve fame, were also popular and by their greater size provided scope for the stronger colours he now liked to employ.
The year 1642 marked a turning point in his life. His wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh (married 1634), whose dowry combined with his own earnings had enabled him to lead the life of a substantial citizen, died in 1642, a year after the birth of Titus, their only child to survive infancy. In the same year the group portrait The Night Watch failed to attract, mainly because the background figures were not sufficiently individualised to please the vanity of the persons portrayed. In the years that followed, Rembrandt’s earning power steadily declined until (1656) his house and possessions were auctioned to pay his debts. But, ironically, the change in his circumstances marked no decline in the powers of the artist, but the reverse.
His increasing impatience with the artistic conventions of the time may have frightened off his patrons but it completed his emancipation as an artist. The rich burghers may have been less often seen in his studios, but that only left him freer to concentrate upon the intense inner life of those who took their place and who had no social importance that it was necessary to convey. Some of his most perceptive portraits are of his son Titus, of Hendrickje Stoffels (who became his mistress in 1645, bore him a daughter, Cornelia, and was his constant attendant in old age), and the continuing series of self-portraits reflecting alike the passing years and his changes of mood and style.
As regards the latter, Rembrandt was becoming increasingly interested in the texture of his works. He abandons the illusionist convention by which the activity of the paint is always concealed and discovers the emotive power of brush strokes left visible. He no longer pursues the search for the dramatic with its attendant contrasts of light and shade; the vivid colours of the middle years are subdued to the browns, russets and olive greens familiar in his later work. Biblical (and sometimes mythological) subjects recur more often but they are simpler and more serene.
Among the most famous of the pictures of these later years are Saul and David and the group portrait of the Syndics of the Clothmakers Guild. About 300 of his 500 paintings survive, together with 300 etchings and over 1000 drawings.